FIRST-PERSON: God’s providence after a robbery

Sharon and I just got back from Europe, where I was visiting churches and museums in connection with our Southern Seminary program in Christianity and the Arts — from Bayeux to Barcelona, from Lourdes to Lisbon. Along the way, we met three “Good Samaritans” and one really bad one.

The bad one surfaced in Barcelona, on the fourth day of our trip. We’d visited the exotic Sagrada Familia Cathedral and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and we were making our way out of town toward Madrid. But then came the dreaded hum of a flat tire.

Right away, one of the many (seemingly insane) motorcyclists on the road pulled up beside us to tell us the bad news, and he gestured for us to turn right onto a less crowded road. We did so, and then he rode off with a wave. Though I was rusty, I was able to wrestle the jack and “donut” out of the trunk and change the tire.

About two-thirds of the way through the process, a man walked up and gave us repeated instructions in Spanish about how to access a mechanic down the way. We thanked him and finished up, only to discover that while he had us looking one way, he and (we assume) another scoundrel had grabbed billfold and purse from our open car, making off with cash, iPad, jewelry, credit cards and passports.

And later we learned that the motorcyclist was the one who gave us the flat, stabbing the sidewall at a red light. (We’ve traveled to all sorts of challenging places, from Khartoum to the Amazon basin to the far reaches of Indonesia, but never encountered the likes of the notorious and quite skillful thieves of Barcelona.)

We managed to find our way to a police station, contact the consulate (where we met other Americans with their own victim stories), coordinate with the credit card companies, and solicit “wired” cash from family. It all worked out, but at considerable wear and tear. What began as a tourist experience became an adventure, with both breakthroughs and frustrations, especially in finding places to retrieve sent cash. We’d moved from touring to surviving.

As shocking as the Barcelona heist was, we were just as astonished at acts of peculiar kindness by Good Samaritans. Of course, there were many helpful people along our path, some just doing their job, others showing unpaid courtesy. But three were standouts.

First, before we lost the cards, we had a very long day of driving, from the medieval cathedral in Chartres, up to Omaha Beach, over to Mont St. Michel, and down to Nantes.

By the time we got there, it was past midnight, and it’s a lot harder than we remembered to find a hotel after hours in France. Wandering and inquiring, we arrived very late at one of those automated hotels, where you check in by swiping your card at the door, getting a code, and then letting yourself in to both hotel and room. But our American credit cards didn’t work, and we were fast approaching wits’ end.

Then a French couple with their daughter walked up. They were probably as tired as we were, but they jumped in immediately to help us explore all the options — various cards, stripe left, stripe right, swipe fast, swipe slow, push this button first, push this button later … but nothing. Then I asked if we might use their card and then reimburse them with cash — a suggestion they accepted immediately. Though it was 3:00 a.m., we were total strangers, and I was relying on my high school French, they rescued us.

Second, after the robbery, we were explaining our plight to the police, and an American family who lived in Istanbul overheard us. The wife came over and offered us the cash in her purse, about 35 Euros, to help us get started again. We assured her we’d pay her back as soon as we got home, but she said it was no problem if we didn’t. She may have been Muslim. We didn’t ask. All we knew was that she was a merciful stranger whose act of kindness was salve to our troubled souls.

Third, at the end of the trip, after a very long day of “planes, trains, and automobiles,” we hit Paris’s north station at rush hour, and there was no attendant on duty to help us sort out the ticket we needed to make it out to the airport. Lugging bags and dodging harried commuters, we faced an array of entry gates, all requiring a ticket. And then, quick as a wink, a nicely dressed man stepped up and presented us with two fresh tickets and gestured for us to go through the gate.

When, on the other side, I offered him money for the tickets, he declined with a smile and vanished in the crowd. I’m still trying to do the math, but I don’t think he had time to assess our situation, walk over to the ticket machine, make the selection, and get back to us. So I’m thinking he may have been a supernatural messenger of God, an angel, who intervened to deliver us in a moment of great weariness and disorientation.

In sum, we thought we were going on a culture trip, and, to a great extent, we were — from the Prado in Madrid to the Alhambra in Granada. But we mainly had a faith trip, a marriage enrichment retreat (with teamship as the theme), a fresh take on both the gravity and depth of human wickedness and the beauty of compassion — and, over all, the wonderful providence of God in all our trials.

Back in New York for a couple of days, I saw a number of billboards featuring Jay Z for Duracell, with the comment, “Never Be Powerless.” My experience was just the opposite, for in our time of great vulnerability, we saw the providence of God and the beauty of kindness in clearest relief.-BP